February 20, 2011

John 10:11-16
Acts 9:10-19
Ezekiel 34:1-6, 11-16

When you’re preparing to become a minister in the Presbyterian Church in Canada there are a number of steps in the process before ordination. One of those steps is to attend a Guidance Conference. A group of divinity students gathers at Crieff Hills Conference Centre near Guelph Ontario, along with a team of ministers and lay leaders within the Presbyterian Church. And we spend three days in personal and small group reflection on our call to ministry in the church.

The process includes a series of interviews and discussions that each student goes through with three counsellors. I don’t remember very much of the content of those conversations when I attended the Guidance Conference, but I do remember that at one point, someone asked me to think about what image I would choose to represent what my role would be as a minister in the church.

I remember that I paused for a moment to think about what image to choose. And then I said, “Well, often people use the image of a shepherd for the minister. But I’m not sure how I feel about that. I don’t think that’s the image that I would use for my ministry.”

“Why not?” the counsellor asked, and so I had to think and talk about it a little more. “Well, I feel like the shepherd image should be reserved for Christ. Jesus is the good shepherd, and I will only be one of his sheep. Yes, I’ll be the minister, but I’ll be working and serving alongside all the people of God. I’ll have the privilege of walking with them on their journeys and providing help and support along the way, but becoming the shepherd sounds like I’m taking the place of God. It just doesn’t feel too comfortable for me right now.”

Almost ten years has gone by since I made that comment about becoming a shepherd, and I have learned a great deal since then through the experience of actually being a minister in the church. And I guess over time, I’ve become a lot more comfortable with the image of the shepherd for my role as a minister.

What may have bothered me at first was the idea that a shepherd was so much smarter and more capable and powerful than the stupid sheep. What bothered me was that to become the shepherd seemed like lording it over the lowly sheep. But that’s not what I hear when I read about Kennon Callahan’s concept of Shepherding Visitation.

Callahan writes: “Shepherding is a spirit of loving, listening, learning, and blessing. When we shepherd, we share a word of grace that encourages a person in his or her own life. Shepherding is not primarily advising or coaching. Shepherding is restoring… it shares grace. It is a gift freely given. We do it because God shepherds us and invites us to share the blessing of shepherding with persons God gives us.”

Shepherding means visiting with people who are in hospitals, homebound, in assisted living, and nursing homes.

Shepherding means visiting with congregation members, adherents, and family and friends of our congregation.

Shepherding means visiting with our community: first-time worshipers, newcomers, and friends in the community.

Shepherding means enjoying visits that have a sacramental quality that benefits and blesses people’s lives.

What I have discovered is that shepherding doesn’t mean having a special connection to God, or special knowledge from God that I must impart… but shepherding means listening to God, visiting with people, joining with them on a part of their journey, and being attentive to God’s presence.

And shepherding visits, (when they don’t get too crowded out by meetings and administration and programming), can be among the most meaningful and valuable thing that a minister gets to do. There can be some truly sacramental moments, when God’s presence becomes visible and is experienced both by those visited and the one doing the visiting as well.

Not too long ago, I heard a complaint about a Presbyterian minister in another part of the country. The complaint was not about his preaching or his theology. It wasn’t about the programs he initiated, what he wrote in the church newsletter, or what he said or did in church meetings. The complaint was rather intangible… “It just feels like he’s not WITH us,” they said.

That minister was missing out on the opportunity to share generous shepherding visits with the people of his church… whether in the hospital, in their homes, over coffee hour, or even before and after meetings. He was never in the office for people to stop by or call up, and his congregation members were beginning to feel alone and abandoned.

As I seek to grow as a minister, and as a shepherd for this congregation, I must learn from examples like that, and take the many opportunities to be WITH you on your journeys through life and ministry… to listen, to care, to spend time with you.

But Callahan points out that Shepherding Visitation is not solely the responsibility of the minister in a church. He says that there is a desperate need for shepherding visitation, by both the pastor and the congregation. And for visiting to be most helpful, it should be done by ministers, other leaders, and congregation members.

St. Andrew’s has a pretty good network of people who are visiting. There are people visiting in the hospitals. There are others visiting our members in nursing homes and visiting those who are homebound. Our pastoral care co-ordinators are doing their best to fill in the gaps and to anticipate the needs of our members.

In addition, the members of Session – those known as the ruling elders – have an important responsibility in the area of pastoral care. Each one of our elders has a list of members and adherents, and they are asked to visit, phone, or otherwise make contact with each person on their list during the month or so leading up to our celebrations of Communion.

Do they think of their visits as shepherding visits? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s just a matter of checking off names on a list for some, especially when life becomes busy and hectic.

And our other problem, of course, is that we don’t have enough elders at the moment. The number of people in our church community has gone up recently, while the number of elders has gone down a little as some have needed to retire or step back from this ministry for one reason or another. And so some of you won’t have an elder to come and visit you or call you up to see how you are.

And so shepherding visits are not only for ministers, not only for official pastoral care visitors, not only for elders… All the people of the church community are invited and encouraged to share generous shepherding visits with others inside and outside our church community.

Like Ananias, we need to be listening for opportunities to share shepherding visits even with people outside our church. I don’t mean that we go and hit our friends, relatives, and neighbours over the head with bible quotes and wrangle them into coming to church and getting involved in our programs.

But we do need to be responsive to God’s call to visit those outside the church… to listen, to care, and to share the love of God. We never know what effect those visits might have… a coffee break conversation with a colleague, a waiting-room conversation with a stranger, or a moment of care and attention paid to a cousin or an aunt or a nephew at a family gathering… All of those conversations can be your opportunity to share generous shepherding visits, even outside of the church community.

Perhaps my hesitancy to become a shepherd came from Israel’s experience of powerful leaders who took advantage of the people. God spoke to the prophet Ezekiel, and told him to prophesy against the false shepherds of Israel:

Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

It is a great responsibility to be a shepherd… whether as a minister, or as an elder, or as a member of a congregation. It is a great responsibility to care for others as we care for ourselves, and even to put them first before our own concerns.

It is a great responsibility. And at times, we will fail. We will lose some sheep. We will scare off some sheep. We will forget that the sheep are actually the point… that the shepherds are nothing without the sheep.

But just as God stepped in to correct the mistakes of Israel’s false shepherds… Just as God stepped in to seek out each and every lost sheep… God will be the Shepherd of shepherds for us as well.

For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land…

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…

Indeed, we know that in Jesus Christ, God became the good shepherd… gathering not only God’s people Israel, but all God’s people into the flock of God.

Callahan points out what others have noticed before him… that God is the ultimate shepherding visitor. God did not simply remain on high… watching the troubles, and trials, and wanderings of the people down below. God cared enough about us to actually come and visit with us. In the words of Zechariah’s song in Luke’s Gospel: “Praise to the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people.”

The coming of Christ is the greatest visit of all… as God drew close to us, walked with us, taught us, directed us, healed us, and helped us. In Christ, God was truly our good shepherd… who cared about the sheep so deeply that he was willing not only to risk his life, but to give it up for our sake.

We give praise and thanks to God for Jesus, our good shepherd… and we give thanks for the Spirit of God that continues to visit us and guide us in God’s ways.

And as we seek to grow together as an effective church, living in the grace of God, may God help us all to become good shepherds to one another. May we share more and more generous, shepherding visits within our church and outside it, that God may work through us to seek the lost, and bring back the strayed, and bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak. Amen.